Climate Activists in New England Can Finally Celebrate ‘The End of Coal’
Portside Date:
Author: Siobhan Senier
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Waging Nonviolence

On March 27, Granite Shore Power, or GSP, announced that it will “voluntarily” stop burning coal at its Merrimack and Schiller Stations in New Hampshire by 2028. Major news outlets have been hailing the news as the “end of coal in New England” and casting GSP as a leader in the transition to clean, renewable energy.

Insofar as media have acknowledged the role of outside pressure on GSP at all, they have mainly cited a lawsuit by the Sierra Club and Conservation Law Foundation for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. But activists know better: Nonviolent direct action gets the goods.

Those of us who have participated in the No Coal No Gas campaign, or NCNG, have been anticipating Merrimack Station’s closure for some time. (Schiller Station has not run since May 2020.) In fact, in June 2023, we threw a festive retirement party outside Merrimack Station’s gates, complete with cake and surveillance by the New Hampshire Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Then, just three weeks before GSP’s own press release, we held a weekend retreat to reflect on everything our campaign has accomplished, plan for the future and strategize when, how and whether to declare victory.

It had become obvious to us that victory was imminent, if not a fait accompli. In partnership with the Sierra Club and 350NH, we have been monitoring the plant’s failed attempts to complete federally-mandated stack tests to measure its pollution emissions. At the same time, from conversations with local IBEW workers, we also know that employment at the plant has all but dried up, as union workers only come in to do repairs. What’s more, by monitoring our regional grid operator’s annual “forward capacity payments” — which are effectively taxpayer subsidies for coal — we know that funding for Merrimack Station is slated to end in 2026.

However, the most striking bit of evidence pointing to the plant’s demise is the fact that we have not seen any new coal deliveries in well over a year. We believe this is largely due to the campaign’s rather spectacular and widely reported coal train blockades. From December 2019 to December 2022, we stopped multiple trains in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. We stopped a single train no less than three times on its route, and we stopped another for hours by erecting scaffolding on the tracks. This strategy pushed rail carrier CSX, in one case, to split a very long coal train into segments in an unsuccessful and expensive attempt to “hide” from activists. 

Halting resupply, even temporarily, is one tactic to convince corporate oligarchs that coal is a bad investment. Another approach, used by NCNG’s corporate research group, was to directly target Merrimack Station’s two private equity owners, Castleton Commodities and Atlas Holdings. We delivered coal to their corporate offices and even to the homes of CEOs, holding rallies and dropping banners. In 2021, Castleton decided to divest from the partnership.

Beyond pressuring for divestment, though, these tactics strive to show what’s possible. In this vein, we’ve also pursued civil disobedience at Merrimack Station itself. In 2019, 69 people in Tyvek suits were arrested as they carried buckets onto the property, vowing to carry the coal out bucket by bucket. In 2021, 18 of us began renovating the facility’s driveway, digging up asphalt and planting food for people and flowers for soil remediation. Like so much nonviolent direct action, these were not only attempts to interfere with business as usual; they were acts of collective imagination.

On the streets, in the courts, in our writing, art and advocacy, activists seek to expose, critique and upend systems of power. Like anyone who practices civil disobedience, we’re often told that there are “more appropriate” ways to enact change. But as one of our members, Nastasia Lawton-Sticklor, puts it, “disobedience. . .[is] an uncompromising vision of radical, as in from the roots, change.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that we see ourselves as some kind of extreme flank, “throwing ourselves into wild escalation to make lawsuits and the legislation seem inherently reasonable.” Rather, Lawton-Sticklor says, “I see this as an invitation to continue peeling back the layers of systemic power, to make visible the inherent compulsion for self-preservation that grounds systemic concession, and to keep going.”

A campaign and a community, not an organization

How does a climate campaign “keep going”? How do we sustain such pressure and diversity of tactics over a period of years? It actually has a lot do with NCNG being a campaign, as opposed to a more formal nonprofit organization.

While we certainly benefit from — and could not continue without — support from the Climate Disobedience Center and 350NH, NCNG is not embedded in or beholden to the nonprofit industrial complex like many other organizations are. As a result, our strategic decision-making is not driven by fundraising concerns or donor preferences. Rather, the campaign draws on capillaries of power running through multiple, shifting affinity groups and mutually beneficial relationships with other established groups and campaigns.

Since its inception in 2019, NCNG has had three precisely articulated goals: 1. Build unity and community; 2. Show what is possible; and 3. Shut down the Merrimack Generating Station. It’s worth noting that shutting down Merrimack Station was only ever our third — and arguably the least important — goal. We know, after all, that this coal plant is only one contributor to climate catastrophe and that our own actions are only one tiny part of a much larger, multi-pronged climate justice movement.

“Building community” does not simply mean that campaign participants become their own kind of cohesive in-group, although that has sometimes happened. Rather, the campaign seeks to establish and nurture relations among existing and yet-to-be communities.

We are college professors, ministers, farmers, artists, scientists, lawyers, students, parents, grandparents and shift workers. We bring connections to schools, churches, radical collectives and political formations. We help stitch together relations among existing nonprofits like and fellow campaigns like Fix the Grid; we encourage new affinity groups and support longstanding ones; and we have made our presence known to our regional grid operator ISO-New England. Sometimes we have done so in playful ways — for example, by delivering a wheelbarrow of coal to their security gate during a blizzard on Super Bowl Sunday.

Moreover, we have intently studied their arcane operations and then elected members to their Consumer Liaison Group in what became known locally as the “ballroom coup.” In this capacity, we have pressured ISO-New England to stop giving ratepayer money to legacy fossil fuel plants. We have enlisted hundreds of friends and supporters in writing public comments urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject these forward capacity payments.

In turn, we show up for others’ struggles. Perhaps because we did so much intensive organizing during the height of COVID — when so much work and sociality had to move online — we have been able to draw in like-minded activists from around New England and beyond, and to connect with other activist efforts.

NCNG participants routinely show up for each other’s actions on, for instance, LGBTQ+ rights or the Free Palestine movement. We sometimes even put the campaign on pause to lend support to major actions, as we did during 2021, when many of us traveled to Minnesota in the fight against Line 3, incurring arrest and continuing to provide remote legal support to fellow co-defendants. Showing up for other groups’ struggles is critical, not only because our issues are all so intertwined, but also because in doing so, we learn. We share our skills and develop new ones. We engage in the critical, sustaining activity of thinking together.

New England after coal

On April 4 we held a mass call on Zoom to celebrate Merrimack Station’s closure announcement, and to sketch out our next phase. Continuing to show what is possible, we are looking to shut down all of New England’s so-called fossil fuel peaker plants — those facilities that, like Merrimack Station, run only during times of peak electricity demand, generally during periods of extreme cold or heat. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, Merrimack Station ran for only about 500 hours last year.

Peaker plants are expensive and dirty, and arguably unnecessary. In many places they are being replaced with battery storage. They could also be eliminated, we believe, with better demand response, which means encouraging consumers to shift their electricity use to times when demand on the grid is lower. We feel that leadership from our utilities and grid operator has been lacking in this regard, so we are doing what they won’t: building a ratepayer collective that will practice demand response on the New England grid ourselves.

As our demand response cohort puts it, this means “We will stay grounded in community and mutuality because we are more than individual ‘consumers.’ We have the power to choose to work collaboratively to shift our relationship to energy use, to become more intentional. And this means that together we have the power to transform how the energy markets in our region work.” In short, by building an alliance of ratepayers “ready to support each other in the face of snowballing economic, environmental, health and social crises,” we will be laying the foundation “for joyful, community-centered conservation demand response and a just transition.”

This, maybe, is what “victory” in the climate fight really means: that we are learning what we can achieve together, with or without the necessary actions that our governments, economic leaders and regulators seem categorically or politically unwilling to take. Something that has always stuck out to me is a series of questions I’ve heard posed by Marla Marcum, one of the founders of the Climate Disobedience Center (and our campaign). Many times, after a nonviolent direct action, we will be debriefing, and Marla will ask, “Regardless of whether this particular action succeeds in shutting down this particular coal plant, what has it done for us? What have we learned? How have we grown stronger? What does this growth make possible?”

When we fight, we really do win. And what we win is the ultimate bulwark against climate grief and despair. We find each other.


Siobhan Senier is a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire, where she teaches classes on climate justice. She is the editor of "Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Writing from Indigenous New England."


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